A toast to the ‘Mother and Father of Japanese Whisky’

A centenary dinner is being held in memory of a remarkable partnership which united two lives and two countries in pursuit of one dream – challenging convention and changing the world of whisky forever.

Rita Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru met in Kirkintilloch in 1919. He was a student from Japan – eager to learn the secrets of genuine Scotch whisky. She was a reserved Scottish woman, still recovering from family tragedy.

They fell in love, married in 1920 and together travelled from Scotland to Japan – where they would become known as the ‘Mother and Father of Japanese Whisky’.

A toast will be raised to Rita and Masataka – and the company they created, which grew into the legendary Nikka Whisky – at a special event being held in Kirkintilloch, just yards from where they first met.

The Spirit of Alba Centenary Celebration Dinner takes place on Monday August 26 in Kirkintilloch Town Hall, with around 100 guests due to attend, including Nozomu Takaoka (Consul General of Japan in Edinburgh) and Ms Fiona Hyslop MSP (Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs).

There will also be representatives of Rita’s family, local businesses, the whisky and distillery industry, Japanese media, University of Glasgow, Imperial College London, VisitScotland, East Dunbartonshire Council and more.

The Strathkelvin area – which includes Kirkintilloch – is twinned with Yoichi in northern Japan, where Nikka’s first distillery was created.

The dinner is supported by Connect Local – Regional Food Fund (RFF) and is the idea of Jim Hopkins, who hails from Kirkintilloch and is the owner of local company Spirit of Alba.

He said: ‘I was always aware of the legendary local story of Rita and Masataka. It’s a remarkable tale of love, perseverance, business success, and international co-operation and friendship.

‘When I became aware that their initial meeting took place in 1919 I waited for lots of celebratory events to be announced. When this didn’t happen, I took it upon myself to organise the Centenary Celebration Dinner.

‘As Spirit of Alba moves forward with exciting plans to install the region’s first whisky distillery in over 150 years, the link between Rita and Masataka, Scotland and Japan, and Kirkintilloch and Yoichi will be an important part of our story.

‘It will open new and exciting doors for the region as we enter the world of whisky tourism.

‘It would have been simply wrong not to celebrate this important moment in world whisky history – especially when Kirkintilloch plays such a central part.’

The event will include entertainment from Robin Laing, Scotland’s very own whisky bard, and an excerpt from a newly-penned play inspired by the story of Rita and Masataka – entitled ‘Water of Life’.

It is fitting that the dinner will be held in Kirkintilloch Town Hall, which is home to one of Rita’s kimonos and other artefacts relating to the former Lenzie Academy pupil and her union with Masataka.

In addition, the 2019 Spirit of Alba Gin & Whisky Festival – being held in the Town Hall on Saturday 31 August – will be dedicated to the life, work and legacy of Rita and Masataka. The festival is also supported by the RFF.

Both events tie in with Kirkintilloch Canal Festival, which takes place between Monday 26 August and Sunday 1 September – and is also celebrating the Taketsurus. Visit www.kirkintillochcanalfestival.org

There is a museum which honours their memory in Yoichi – including a recreation of their living room – while their story was featured in a popular Japanese TV drama – entitled ‘Massan’ (Rita’s nickname for Masataka). There are even reports of a Rita Taketsuru Fan Club.

For more information on Spirit of Alba, visit https://spiritofalba.com/